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The most important leadership skills for women, as voted by Australia’s top female CEOs


We are very much aware that there is a lot of rhetoric surrounding leadership skills. So ahead of our Women in Leadership Summit 2019 we thought we’d take advantage of our privileged access to Australia’s most senior women in leadership by sending all of our speakers the same question. We did this to see how their responses resonated with or differentiated from one another so we could work out which skills were most common among successful leaders.


We asked each speaker the following: What are the top five skills every woman in leadership should have? Their responses were surprisingly consistent, but varied enough to showcase that real individuality and authenticity are needed to make it to the top. The four most advocated skills were resilience and adaptability (which we see as complementary), authenticity, empathy and courage. We’ll lay out the responses and what they mean below:


Skill #1: Having Resilience and Adaptability

“Resilience and Adaptability,” Ann Sherry, former CEO of Carnival Cruises was the first to respond to our question, her answer was short and sharpened to the point, much like Ann herself (you don’t orchestrate the turnaround of a company and have time to mince words.)


Chelsea Bonner, of Bella Management, believes that women face more specific challenges, that women are always ultimately torn between the obligation to the ‘life’ side of the work/life balance, and that men are far less subject to this kind of judgement. As she says: “You will be tested and will need resilience to keep going through the emotional blackmail you will be confronted with daily.” She also notes that there is no strategy for success that won’t need to be reconsidered or readjusted, as “there are swings and roundabouts in every plan, it’s not a straight paved road to success.”


More business-minded and less gender-focused, Gabby Costigan, CEO of BAE Systems believes that for her this is more about our disruptive economic climate and the constant transformation that businesses must undergo to be resilient and stay relevant: “As a leader, being able to flex and respond as needed and inspire this agility in your teams is a core skill.”


For Marnie Baker, MD of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank and Nicola Grayson, CEO of Consult Australia adaptability is more about leading different types of people and organisations, with different ideas and working styles. If you are open to feedback and are willing to accommodate others, then you will ultimately be more effective and cultivate stronger working relationships.


Skill #2: Leading with Authenticity

Authenticity as a leadership attribute is so widely discussed and important that we devote an entire summit to it. Ann Sherry nailed it when she listed ‘a sense of self’ as one of her top skills. The main tenet of authentic leadership is being yourself at work, not your ‘work self’. This is because the people you lead always respond better to someone who the feel they know rather than someone who is putting on an act.


Angela Mentis, CEO of BNZ hit on another key aspect of authenticity when she said that as a leader you must “stay true to your values.” Leaders must be able to align their values and purpose with their organisation’s if their leadership is going to be the right fit. These key aspects of authenticity are neatly summed up by Claire Rogers, CEO of World Vision: “Authenticity – this is grounded in vulnerability and personal honesty.”


Echoing Brene Brown, Marnie Baker cites vulnerability as a key aspect of authentic leadership and it’s no coincidence that this is the subject of her keynote at the Women in Leadership Summit 2019. Being vulnerable really means accepting your humanity, being bold enough to admit when you don’t know something and being open to being corrected. Rather than being a weakness, being vulnerable lets your people know that you are real, you are human, and you value their ideas and input. As Nicola Grayson adds, this is characterised by ‘transparency and openness’, and it makes you a better leader.



Skill #3: Being Empathetic

Empathy is a leadership attribute that is related to authenticity, but many of our CEOs, including Ann Sherry and Angela Mentis, singled it out as being just as important. Good leaders must listen to their teams and can pick up when something is wrong to ensure that they adequately support their organisation. This allows leaders to, as Marnie Baker put it, “lift the tide of all of those within your organisation”, which is the hallmark of an excellent leader. For Chelsea Bonner, empathy is probably the most important skill that any professional should have. “Emotional intelligence is just as important, if not more important than any university degree in my opinion.”


Skill #4: Being Courageous

Out of all of the leadership attributes laid out by our speakers, courage has to be the most important and most relevant to our Women in Leadership Summit 2019 agenda. Leaders don’t become leaders without the courage to take action and step forward. To put themselves in the ring. To take that next step in their careers. This is particularly the case for women, since we have far fewer sponsors to endorse us, and traditionally far fewer opportunities to seek promotion. For these reasons we are 60% less likely to even apply for a job if we’re not 100% sure we can get it. This needs to change.


Gabby Costigan, CEO of military contractor BAE Systems (possibly the most macho industry imaginable) says it best when she states “women leaders need self-belief and courage first and foremost. You must trust in your capabilities and be willing to take a chance in the pursuit of leadership. A fear of failure means at times women tend to wait until they feel completely ready before making this leap. I’ve learned that if you feel 100 per cent ready for your next step, the challenge is already too small for you.” Angela Mentis, Marnie Baker and Claire Rogers agree, and so do I.


The only way that true equality can be reached is by taking action, taking risks and putting ourselves in the mix. We must take action if not for our own benefit, then certainly for the benefit of the women around us as well as the next generation of bright, capable and promising young women and we need to heed the experience of those that have gone before us.


If you want to heed and absorb the experience of those women mentioned in this article, the Women in Leadership Summit 2019 will take place on 24 – 27 September 2019. Limited tickets remain.


Written by Dana Lightbody, Executive Director and Chair of The Leadership Institute